Woman embracing man with hearing loss in park because he is feeling depressed.

Are you aware that about one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 is affected by hearing impairment and half of them are older than 75? But despite its prevalence, only about 30% of people who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number drops to 16% for those younger than 69! Depending on whose numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million individuals suffering from neglected hearing loss, although some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

There are a number of reasons why people may not get treatment for hearing loss, especially as they grow older. Only 28% of people who reported some amount of hearing loss actually got tested or sought further treatment, according to one study. Many people just accept hearing loss as a standard part of the aging process. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the considerable advancements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a very treatable condition. That’s important because a growing body of research indicates that managing hearing loss can improve more than just your hearing.

A study from a research group based at Columbia University adds to the documentation relating hearing loss and depression. They compiled data from over 5,000 adults aged 50 and older, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also assessing them for symptoms of depression. After adjusting for a host of variables, the researchers found that the likelihood of suffering with clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And 20 decibels is not very loud, it’s around the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.

It’s surprising that such a little difference in hearing creates such a large increase in the likelihood of developing depression, but the basic relationship isn’t a shock. This new study expands the sizable existing literature linking hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000, which found that mental health got worse along with hearing loss. Another study from 2014 that revealed both people who self-reported trouble hearing and who were found to have hearing loss based on hearing tests, had a significantly higher danger of depression.

Here’s the good news: Researchers and scientists don’t believe that it’s a chemical or biological relationship that exists between hearing loss and depression. It’s likely social. People who have hearing loss will frequently steer clear of social interaction because of anxiety and will even sometimes feel anxious about standard day-to-day situations. This can increase social separation, which further leads to even more feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s easily broken.

Treating hearing loss, normally with hearing aids, according to several studies, will decrease symptoms of depression. 1.000 individuals in their 70’s were studied in a 2014 study which couldn’t define a cause and effect relationship between depression and hearing loss because it didn’t look over time, but it did reveal that those people were far more likely to suffer from depression symptoms if they had neglected hearing loss.

But other research, which observed subjects before and after getting hearing aids, reinforces the hypothesis that treating hearing loss can help relieve symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects altogether, the researchers found that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them demonstrated considerable improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 revealed the same results even further out, with every single person in the sample continuing to notice less depression six months after starting to wear hearing aids. And even a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still noticing relief from symptoms of depression.

It’s difficult struggling with hearing loss but help is out there. Learn what your options are by having your hearing tested. It could benefit more than your hearing, it could positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.

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